Melissa Stark is one of the new faces this season on NBC’s ratings powerhouse “Sunday Night Football.” But neither she nor her role is unfamiliar.
“Sunday Night Football,” which has been the highest-rated prime-time program on television the past 11 years and is tracking in that direction this fall, underwent a makeover in the offseason. Mike Tirico took over for Al Michaels as the play-by-play voice, while Stark came over from NFL Network to replace sideline reporter Michele Tafoya, who departed to work on a Minnesota political campaign and spew nonsense on Fox News from time to time.
Stark was a bit of an unexpected hire — conventional wisdom presumed that Kathryn Tappen, who already had prominence and respect at NBC Sports, would take over. But Stark is an effortless fit on “SNF,” whose broadcast team called a Patriots game for the first time this season when they visited the Vikings on Thanksgiving.
“It’s kind of like riding a bike, except a lot has changed since I did it 20 years ago,” said Stark, who became one of the first high-profile female sideline reporters during her 2000-02 stint with ABC’s “Monday Night Football,” where she worked with Michaels and current “SNF” director Drew Esocoff, among others. “You actually have more access to the players and coaches. You have more cameras. The PR staffs and the players all get it, that this is part of the job.”
Stark, whose first assignment in 2000 for “Monday Night Football” was the preseason Hall of Fame Game, which happened to feature the debut of a rookie named Tom Brady, acknowledged that she was cognizant then of being one of the few females in a prominent NFL broadcasting role.
“I remember Andy Rooney came out and said something on ‘60 Minutes’ like, ‘What’s a woman going to tell me [about football]?’ ’’ she said. “That doesn’t happen anymore. So I can just do the job and not worry about it. And with 20-plus years in the NFL, I feel so comfortable there in this role.
“There’s a great magnitude to ‘Sunday Night Football,’ but I’m at a place where I know the players, the coaches, the people around the league, and what is necessary to do the job the right way.”
For Thursday’s game, NBC had a tribute to John Madden, who was synonymous with Thanksgiving Day NFL broadcasts. Stark became close to Madden during their time on “Monday Night Football,” and they remained tight until his death last December at age 85.
“I think about those times riding the Madden Cruiser and listening to his stories and how interested he was in what was happening in other peoples’ lives,” said Stark, who has four high-school-aged children with her husband and sometimes brings them on the road with her to build memories. “We talked a couple of days before he died. That’s what he was about, making genuine, lasting personal connections.
“The bonds you build are one of my favorite parts of this job, and that really did start with Madden. He was such a man of the people. I’m excited to be celebrating him.”
Calling it like he sees it?
Brady will begin his $375 million contract with Fox Sports when his playing career ends, but it sounds like he’s conflicted on what type of broadcaster he intends to be. On the most recent episode of his “Let’s Go!” podcast on SiriusXM, Brady told cohost Jim Gray and guest Charles Barkley that he believes there are “a lot more games lost in the NFL than there are won” and that he tends to lean toward bluntness in his assessments of other players.
“I just feel like there’s probably more Johnny Miller in me, where when I used to watch him on golf telecasts, it was just scathing sometimes. ‘What, that guy choked under pressure?’ or whatever,” Brady said, referring to NBC’s former lead golf analyst. “That’s essentially how I end up seeing the game a lot now.”
But Brady also indicated that he believes broadcasters too often trend toward the negative when it comes to quarterback play.
“When I watch football now,” he said, “the only thing I see — nine out of 10 it’s, ‘Man, that was a really bad play.’ As opposed to, ‘Wow, the spectacular play that Patrick [Mahomes] made or the spectacular play that [Josh Allen] made.’ ”
Not sure which broadcasts Brady is watching, but the only high-profile color analyst who regularly acknowledges subpar quarterback play without any qualifiers is ESPN’s Troy Aikman. Brady will be a huge broadcasting success if he turns out to be as forthcoming as Aikman.
James White is the latest of many former Patriots to find a post-playing-career niche in sports media. The former running back and star of Super Bowl LI is a color analyst for Sports USA Live’s national radio broadcasts of NFL games.
Two weeks ago, White and play-by-play voice Josh Appel had the call of arguably the game of the year, the Vikings’ 33-30 overtime victory over the Bills. White is also a weekly postgame guest on The Ringer’s “Off The Pike” podcast hosted by Brian Barrett, and his relative candor about the Patriots is refreshing considering he is not far removed from being an active player, having retired in training camp this year because of a hip injury.
A few weeks ago, White acknowledged with a laugh something we all suspected: After all these years, Bill Belichick still takes particular joy in beating the Jets.
Job well done
A tip of the cap to WEEI’s Christian Fauria, who raised more than $251,000 for diabetes research and prevention with his annual “Crusade for a Cure” fund-raiser recently. Fauria remained on the air for 25 consecutive hours during the fund-raiser, which began Nov. 16. Fauria has raised more than $551,000 in three years of the event.